LOS ANGELES Just last spring, an incensed Kobe Bryant was the NBA's most vocal player, demanding to be traded by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now, nearing the end of what he calls his most satisfying regular season, Bryant is among the leading candidates for another MVP moniker: Most Valuable Player.
"It would be special. It would be a tremendous honor," Bryant said in a recent interview.
This MVP label, obviously, is more preferable for all concerned. Outside of his dealings with NBA officials, who have slapped the All-Star guard with a league-high 15 technical fouls this season, Bryant seems awfully content these days.
"I'm very happy," he said. "It's tough to find a group like this that plays so well together. This is really a brotherhood. We're really, really close, all of us. We're brothers, man."
That would have been the last observation ever expected from Bryant after Los Angeles lost to the Phoenix Suns in last year's playoffs. In the wake of the Lakers' second straight first-round elimination, Bryant first challenged the team to upgrade its roster and later asked to be traded.
Shortly thereafter, there was an amateur videotape made public in which Bryant criticized general manager Mitch Kupchak and demeaned teammate Andrew Bynum. Bryant kept a low profile the rest of the summer. He said all the right things during training camp in October until Lakers owner Jerry Buss, in his first public comments about Bryant since the trade demand, told reporters he was doing all he could to honor the request.
That upset Bryant again, but he swore when the season began he would focus on the task at hand. That's what he's done, and the Lakers have been one of the NBA's surprise teams despite having to deal with a number of injuries, including a torn ligament in Bryant's right pinkie. Even though surgery was recommended, he hasn't missed a game.
"Best year ever as far as an overall team player," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said regarding Bryant. "I think the judgment that I kind of make is, how much better do you make your teammates? This has been one of Kobe's finest years in that regard."
That's a source of great pride to Bryant, a 12-year NBA veteran despite being only 29.
"That's always been a knock on me, that I don't make my teammates better," he said. "It used to be that the MVP award always went to the players who were considered the best. Now, it's more about elevating the players around you."
Phoenix's Steve Nash, the epitome of elevating his teammates, won the MVP award two straight years before Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki won it last year.
This year's winner figures to be Bryant, Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics.
"I just think this league is overdue to give Kobe Bryant his just due," Houston's Rafer Alston said. "After what happened last summer, the way he's come back and the way he's led his team this year, I would say he's my MVP."
Bryant agreed with his coach, that this has been his best regular season. And that's saying something since Bryant is a 10-time All-Star who along with Shaquille O'Neal led the Lakers to three championships, from 2000-02, and was the NBA's scoring champion each of the past two years.
"I would say so," Bryant said. "It's a different role for me this year. I'm enjoying it, we seem to be thriving. It's all about winning. In the past, I've tried to do what it takes. We've made some big upgrades, it's given me weapons. A lot of my peers have had those weapons."
The most obvious upgrades have been Derek Fisher, signed during the offseason, and Pau Gasol, acquired Feb. 1 from Memphis. The Lakers already had Bynum, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic all former first-round draft choices when Bryant exploded last spring.
All three, especially the 20-year-old Bynum, have shown great improvement this season, but the 7-foot center hasn't played since injuring his left knee Jan. 13. Another talented newcomer, Trevor Ariza, has been sidelined since breaking his right foot Jan. 20. In addition, Gasol returned recently after missing nine games because of a sprained right ankle.
Through it all, the Lakers have kept winning and stayed in contention for the regular-season championship of the rugged Western Conference.
"With the injuries and everything that's happened, he gets my vote," Fisher said. "I don't think he's been phenomenal in Kobe standards. He could average 40 points a game if he wanted to."
Bryant is doing very well statistically, averaging 28.7 points to rank second behind James; 6.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.9 steals.
"He's had a great impact on our team from an emotional and a chemistry aspect," Fisher said. "He continues to get more comfortable leading the team. I think he's made the transition from being the best individual player in the league to still the best player in the game and one of the best to play with."
While it might seem surprising that Bryant has never won an MVP award, it's really no surprise at all.
"With Shaq on his team for (eight) of those years, basically Kobe was going to be a second choice as far as the most valuable player on that team," Jackson said. "Since that time, not making the playoffs the subsequent year, there wasn't an opportunity.
"The following year, he really had an exceptional year, he led the league in scoring. He had some outrageous games. ... That was the year that he could have been named MVP, but with Nash coming and the really unbelievable season Phoenix had, you had to consider that as a factor."
While Bryant talked about the season and his MVP chances in a nearly empty Lakers dressing room after a recent game, his wife and two daughters suddenly appeared because 4-year-old Natalia needed to use the bathroom.
With a big smile as an MVP most valuable poppa Bryant took Natalia's hand and the two headed off.